Within Paul’s letters and Luke’s Gospel we encounter the verb presbeuō (2 Corinthians 5:20 and Ephesians 6:20; it also appears in a textual variant at Ephesians 3:1), the noun presbeia (Luke 14:32; 19:14), and the noun presbeutēs (Philemon 9). The verb and the nouns carry two different senses. One sense refers to being the older one (related to presbuteros, commonly translated as “elder”) and the other sense describes the act of representing others, i.e.serving as legates, ambassadors or envoys. It is probable that presbeutēs in Philemon 9 has the meaning of “old man” as the NIV renders it.
We will focus in this article on Paul’s usage of the verb in 2 Corinthians 5:20 and Ephesians 6:20 where it means “serve as an ambassador.” In using the verb in this sense Paul reflects historical usage both in the political and the religious sphere. For example, the Greek historian Thucydides employs it frequently to describe how one city state, nation or people group for various reasons authorizes an individual or a group to travel to another Greek centre and represent their cause. In Historiae he describes a legation sent by the Spartans to the Athenians — “they sent ambassadors (epresbeusonto) and endeavoured to get the restitution both of the fort of Pylus and of their men” (4.41.3). Herodotus similarly employed the verb in his Historiae: “These were the words of Socles, the envoy (presbeuõn) from Corinth, and Hippias answered,..” (5.93.1). Both authors were writing in the 5th century B.C.
The verb does not occur in the Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures, but several of the cognates were employed. For example, in Numbers 21:21 the translator renders the Hebrew noun “messenger” as presbeis, i.e. “and Moyses send ambassadors to Seon, king of the Amorrites with peaceful words,…” Mesha, the king of Moab, sends messengers/ambassadors to seek Balaam’s assistance in opposing Israel (Numbers 22:5; cf. 1 Maccabees 9:70; 10:51). The cognate noun presbutēs occurs with the sense of “envoy, ambassador” in 1 Maccabees 13:21 (“but the men in the citadel were sending envoys to Trypho, urging him to come to them….”). The noun presbutai, while normally used with the sense of “old person,” in 2 Maccabees 11:34 has the meaning “envoy” (” Quintus Memmius, Titus Manius, envoys of the Romans, to the people of the Judeans, greetings.”).
The Jewish writer Philo claims that the beings names by Moses as “angels” “go on embassies (presbeuomenas) bearing tidings from the great Ruler…”(Plant. 14). In Conf. 7 he retells a Greek myth about a time when all animals used the same language. “They sent an embassy (epresbeueto) to demand immortality….” When he develops his case against Flaccus, Philo appeals to the practice of the “Augustan House” to hold governors accountable. In such situations “aggrieved cities sent ambassadors (presbeusaionto)” to state their classim (Flaccus 105). In his work De Legatione in which he narrates the account of his participation in a legation sent by Alexandrian Jews to the emperor Gaius to appeal for protection of the Jewish population in Alexandria from mob violence, Philo recounts the story of Pilate’s mistreatment of the Jews in Palestine. When he placed shields in Herod’s palace it provoked a serious outrage among the Jews in Jerusalem and Phlio recounts that the Jews appealed to Pilate to rescind his action. They threatened to “chose envoys (presbeis)” and “send an embassy (presbeusamenoi)” to the emperor Tiberius to appeal this action (De Legatione 301-302). These examples from Philo illustrate how this vocabulary worked and that Jewish writers were well aware of its sense.
So when we consider Paul’s use of the verb in 2 Corinthians 5:20, we discover he employs it to describe his role (and that of other believers) within the mission of God. “So then we function as envoys/emissaries/ambassadors (presbeuomen) on behalf of the Messiah.” He affirms that this is comparable to God himself making an appeal through these people. Their message is clear — accept God'[s offer of reconciliation. They communication God’s declaration of what he has done by sacrificing his son to make this reconciliation possible. Envoys communicated messages from those who authorized them to represent them. So Paul’s claim is quite astounding — he is the Messiah’s envoy and brings the Messiah’s message.
The other text where Paul uses this verb is Ephesians 6:20. Paul says something quite extraordinary. He shares that his mission is “to make known the mystery of the good news” and he is now “serving as its ambassador” even though he is “in chains,” i.e. imprisoned. To be an “ambassador of the good news” is in fact to represent the one who has authorized the proclamation of this good news, i.e. God himself. That people have imprisoned him because of his actions as ambassador shows how they have scorned both the message and the one who has authorized the message. To mistreat an envoy or emissary is to show contempt for the one he represents. Paul asks his friends in Ephesus to pray that he boldly represent his master even as he is mistreated shamefully.